Words at Play


When you look up English words in a dictionary you will often find their antonyms – words that mean exactly the opposite – as well.  Some English words, however, are their own antonyms.  Some people call them auto-antonyms, others call them Janus-faced words (Janus, a Greek god, had two faces that looked in opposite directions), and still others simply call them contronyms.  All three descriptors let us know that we are talking about words that have opposite meanings.  Take for example the verb “buckle.”  It can mean to connect things or it can refer to something that separates or becomes disconnected.  “He buckled his seatbelt.”  That is he brought two parts of something together.  “The bridge buckled and part of it fell into the river.”  In this case, the parts separated.

Another example is the noun “human.”  “We are not divine.  We are merely human.” lets us know that we are lacking when compared to God.  In another sense, “human” connotes superiority: “We are superior to other animals.  We are humans.”

Below are examples of a few contronyms.

  • Bolt: to secure something (such as a door) or to run away.
  • Boned: containing bones or being without bones
  • Cleave: to stay together (as when two people hold on to each other) or to separate (as when you cut something into pieces – with a cleaver, of course).
  • Consult: to offer advice or to seek advice
  • Continue: to keep doing something that is in progress (to continue reading a book) or to stop doing something that is in progress until a later time (to continue a court case)
  • Commencement: beginning (as the beginning of your education) or conclusion (as the commencement ceremony when you complete your education)
  • Custom: normal (as when something is a long established custom) or special (as a custom-made wedding dress)
  • Downhill: to get better (as in “Everything is downhill from here!”) or to get worse (as in “Everything got messed up and my business went downhill.”)
  • Dress: to add (as when you dress for Thanksgiving dinner) or to remove (as when you clean – that is, eviscerate – the Thanksgiving turkey)
  • Dust: to add (as to dust pastry with powdered sugar) or to remove (as when we dust furniture)
  • Earthbound:  Unable to leave the earth (as an injured bird) or headed toward the earth (as a piece of space junk being earthbound)
  • Enjoin: to encourage (as when two people are enjoined to settle their feud) or to prohibit (as when two people are enjoined from having contact with one another)
  • Execute: to begin something (as to execute a contract) or to end something (as to execute a murderer)
  • Fast: to make something secure and immovable (such as a door) or to move quickly (as when you run fast)
  • First Degree and Third Degree: most severe or important (as murder in the first degree, third degree burns, when someone gives you the “third degree,” a third degree black belt in judo) or least severe or important (as in a first degree burn, third degree murder)
  • Flush: to bring into sight (as to flush quail from their hiding places) or to remove from sight (as to flush something down a toilet)
  • Garnish: to add to (as to garnish food) or to take away from (as to garnish someone’s wages)
  • Handicap: an advantage (as in golf), or a disadvantage (as in a physical limitation)
  • Left: remaining (as someone who was left at home) or having departed (as someone who left home)
  • Off: to not function (as when an alarm is off) or to function (as when a house alarm goes off)
  • Out: visible (as the stars are out on a clear night) or invisible (as when a campfire goes out)
  • Periodic: Happening at set intervals or happening randomly
  • Qualified: to be limited (as when someone qualifies a remark) or to be unlimited (as someone who is capable in every way)
  • Sanction: to approve (as a race is sanctioned by an organization) or to disapprove (as when a team is sanctioned for misconduct)
  • Scan: to look at something carefully or to merely glance at something
  • Screen: to view (as to screen a movie) or to hide from view (as to screen something from view)
  • Seed: to add something (as to seed a field) or to remove something (as to seed a watermelon)
  • Shelled: without a shell (as shelled pecans) or with a shell (a turtle is a shelled reptile)
  • Smell: to detect an odor or to produce an odor
  • Temper: to soften (as when you temper your remarks) or to strengthen (as when you temper steel)
  • Trim: to add something (as to trim a Christmas tree) or to remove something (as to trim an oak tree)
  • Utopia: a place with a perfect form of government or a place with a government that is simplistic and flawed
  • Weather: to endure (as when a boat weathers a storm) or to decay (as when wood weathers over the years)
  • Wind up: to start (as when a pitcher winds up) or to end (as when you wind up a project – such as this post)
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